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Jeff's Gameblog
Monday, 12 April 2004

Reading the rules for James Dunnigan's Origins of World War I led me to go reread my copy of his Complete Wargames Handbook. This book is one of three or four that I own that are fairly comprehensive guides to the wargaming hobby. They're all good books and collectively seem to do a good job presenting a snapshot of board wargaming circa 1980. I find myself wondering if any such reference volumes have been published since. A history of the fall of Avalon Hill, SPI, and GDW would prove instructional, as would an overview of recent developments in the hobby.

The nice thing about old reference material like this is that I might get clued in to old games that are still worth playing. I have little doubt that some fun could still be eked out of Panzerblitz, Napoleon at Waterloo, Jutland or Blitzkrieg (especially with the Blitzkrieg Module System floating around online). Some of these games have to be going for a song on eBay, its just a matter of figuring out which wargames are still considered collectible and which are merely out of print.

But the most interesting data from my re-perusal of Mr. Dunnigan's tome was the discovery of some competition for my 'TSR fever' games. In particular, two Avalon Hill games published in the early eighties seem to cover the exact some material as Dawn Patrol and Boot Hill. I'm talking about Richthofen's War and Gunslinger respectively. I can already sense myself poised at the precipice, ready to plunge into the same old trap sprung upon nearly every wargamer before me. I want these AH games, if for no other reason than to compare and contrast them to the TSR counterparts. For that matter, I want a copy of Phil Hall's Blue Max. Because we all know that a casual wargamer like myself needs three frickin' biplane games.

This is the same sort of thinking that leads men to own 42 different Bulge games. Sure, I'd love to own a copy of Steve Jackson's One Page Bulge, if only as a historical curiosity. But I'm afraid that if I get it I will end up selling my platelettes to buy more little chit games. And that reminds me of the most ridiculouys dimension of these wargaming urges: I don't like little chits and little hexes! The main medium for 99% of wargames I have seen is anathema to me. I'm too hamfisted to carefully maeuver half-inch counters across half-inch hexes. Maybe I just need to buy some foreceps and maginfying lenses like the ASL people.

Posted by jrients at 2:55 PM CDT
Sunday, 11 April 2004

As I had hoped I got a chance today to play a game with my brother-in-law Jim and his sons Ian and Alex. I was expecting we'd play Carcassonne or another German game, or maybe a Cheapass game. Instead we ended up playing MarioKart DoubleDash on the boys' Gamecube. I had played the original MarioKart with Sue MecKinney when it first came out for the SuperNintendo. I sucked at the original and I haven't gotten any better since, let me tell you. Still, it was a fun game to play. The character and vehicle choices are fun and the tracks are well designed. Maybe some tracks have a little too much water and/or lava for my skill level, but I still enjoyed the gameplay. Playing MarioKart further solidified my opinion that if I were to ever get a new(er) console it would have to be a Nintendo product. I just love the little Italian plumber and his madcap adventures too much.

Posted by jrients at 6:54 PM CDT

I heard a radio report on WILL (our local NPR station) about the Mah Jong subculture. I don't know anything about the game, but apparently Mah Jong (I hope I'm spelling that right) has a large enough following among older Jewish women in America to warrant their own tournaments and conventions. They interviewed sveral players who had been into Mah Jong for 50 or more years. One player recounted how she and her sister were playing Mah Jong and listeneing to the radio when they heard a newsflash about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Posted by jrients at 10:07 AM CDT
Saturday, 10 April 2004

This weekend I was hoping to get together with my sister Jenny and maybe play Carcassonne or my new chess variant SpaceWarp44. But alas, it was not meant to be. Our schedules this weekend only overlap sufficiently to get together for lunch tomorrow. It will be nice to see her even if we don't get to play a game together and hopefully I will be able to play something tomorrow night with my brother-in-law and his boys.

Unfortunately, this turn of events means we probably won't be able to play SpaceWarp44 prior to the deadline for the chessvariants.com contest. I found playtesting my last variant with her really helped me. Jenny's not a gamer as such and I feel like she can provide a fresh point of view from outside the milieu of the hobby.

Posted by jrients at 10:15 PM CDT
Updated: Saturday, 10 April 2004 10:25 PM CDT
Friday, 9 April 2004

Today I dinked around a bit with a book about Enochian Chess, a weird occult chess variant played by members of the original Golden Dawn. Even stripped of its occult trappings I think the game merits an entry at chessvariants.com, if only as a historical curiosity. Since Enochian Chess was a divination method as well as a game, I'm not sure how high a priority the designer placed upon gameplay. The setup is weird and the pawn promotion rules are different from any chess variant I've ever seen. Still, I think the game is almost certainly playable, even if it isn't a particularly good game.

I also looked at a couple of entries in my copy of Sid Sackson's A Gamut of Games. Two items in that volume interest me in particular. First is a little chess variant called Knight Chase, devised by Alex Randolph. Knight Chase also merits a chessvariants.com entry in my opnion. Mr. Randolph is also author of two or three 3M bookcase games and a chess variant called chessgi or Mad Mate in its commercial incarnation. Chessgi is basically FIDE chess with shogi-like drop rules.

The other game in Sackson's tome that I find intriguing is a little political simulation called Origins of World War I. This game was written by a young Jim Dunnigan back in the sixties. I think I may have to put together a playable set of Origins of World War I. It doesn't look hard. You basically need a large chart, some poker chips, and a few index cards. The game is designed for exactly five players, with four or three being doable. I think my brother-in-law Jim would give it a try. His boys could be drafted. Maybe Don McKinney or Bruce Gletty could also get in on the action.

Posted by jrients at 8:23 PM CDT
TSR Fever, part the Nth
The earliest TSR products were digest-sized wargame products. I call them wargames because even Dungeons & Dragons was originally sub-titled "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures". Original D&D was three digest-sized books in a box. 1st edition Boot Hill was a digest-sized booklet. I've never had an opportunity to read the 1st edition rules, but the '79 second edition that I'm familiar with is still basically a 1:1 wargame with cowboy fluff. Warriors of Mars was a Barsoomian minis game by Tactical Studies Rules that was contemporary to both these games. Warriors of Mars rated heroes in levels much like OD&D and even suggested using OD&D for when heroes go adventuring in the pits below Martian cities. A few Barsoomian critters are to be found on the OD&D encounter charts, though they aren't statted out anywhere but in Warriors of Mars. During roughly this same period TSR was also putting out boardgames in 8 and half by 11 boxes. Two examples of this would be the earliest published incarnation of Dungeon! and the chess variant 4th Dimension. Empire of the Petal Throne came in a somewhat similar format, though as I recall the box was shallower and the cover art was more intricate and colorful. (As an aside, EPT was the Nobilis of its day. It was the Cadillac of RPGs: pretty, pricy, much admired but also considered too setting-rich to be playable by average gamers.)

In the second generation of TSR-brand RPGs (I am excluding AD&D, which at this point becomes its own special case. First edition AD&D was the second Cadillac of RPGs, though it lacked the horse-choking setting info of others.) everything went to the 8 1/2" by 11" box format, usually with two or three booklets in the box, an elaborate map, and counters. Examples of this wave of TSR rpgs would include the first three editions of the Basic D&D (et al.) line and the first two editions of Gamma World, though neither of these products came with counters. Most of the remaining examples of this era all relied heavily on maps and counters: Gangbusters, 2nd edition Boot Hill, both Star Frontiers boxed sets, and Mike Carr's Dawn Patrol. (It may be interesting to note that the precursor to TSR's Dawn Patrol product was a self-published game called Fight in the Skies. FitS first saw light in 1968. In my opinion FitS shares enough characterstics with the modern roleplaying game that it should be considered the first published RPG rather than D&D.)

It was this second wave of TSR rpgs that penetrated mainstream markets suffienctly to reach kids like me. Even a relatively isolated farm boy could find copies of these games at a shopping mall or department store. My friend Pat used to be able to get some of these products in the toy section of his local hardware store! My school chums and I owned nearly all the second generation boxed sets not too long after I got my D&D Basic set in the summer of '82 or so. Tom Novy had the Boot Hill boxed set, Dave Dalley owned a copy of Dawn Patrol (he also had at least one Avalon Hill game, Panzerblitz IIRC), Shawn Watson owned the 2nd edition Gamma World, and I got my hands on both Star Frontiers and Gangbusters. (Nobody ever got Top Secret for some reason. A few years later I bought a copy of James Bond007, locking out Top Secret.) Unfortunately, this was just too much game for our teeny little selfmade grade-school gaming group. It would be years before we would have a solid grasp on just Basic D&D. We weren't ready for a whole slew of other systems. Another problem was that it wasn't immediately obvious to us that the guy what owned the rules was normally expected to GM the darn thing. I'm not sure Tom Novy or Shawn Watson ever seriously considered running either of their games, for example.

For our first few years of roleplaying my friends and I hardly knew that other gaming companies existed. Sure, there were ads for other companies in the few issues of Dragon we had access to. But it didn't immediately seem obvious to us that we needed to try any other companies' products. Some may remember the term Marvel Zombies, an insult that I think is currently out of circulation. Marvel Zombies were an 80's phenomenon: kids who were hooked on Marvel comics and who never even considered buying a DC book. In addition to being tried and true Marvel Zombies, my friends and I spent a couple of years as TSR Zombies.

We eventually did branch out into other companies, notably Chaosium (for Call of Cthulhu, of course), West End (Ghostbusters), ICE (MERP/Rolemaster) and FASA (Doctor Who,Star Trek and most of all, BattleTech/Mechwarrior). A great deal of the motivation for our wandering eye may be explained by our first convention experience (Frontier Wars in Bloomington, Illinois). That's where I found my CoC boxed set and that's where we all fell in love with BattleTech. But our infidelity to TSR was also the result of our encountering the 3rd wave of TSR games: the universal color chart systems. I can name 4 notable examples of this generation: Marvel Super Heroes, Gamma World 3rd edition, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (a new edition of Star Frontiers masquerading as a supplement), and Conan the Barbarian. The revamped Top Secret/SI might have been one of the universal color chart games. I don't know. We had even less interest in that version than the earlier, cooler one.

First let me say that IMHO Marvel Super Heroes is a great supers RPG. I still love it. MSH was sort of a transition game from the earlier generation; it came with a big ol' map and some nifty counters. The four-color universal chart seemed absolutely perfect for simulating four-color comics. Keep in mind that this game came out back when the Punisher was a villain and Wolverine was a relatively minor character compared to Spiderman or Captain America. Everything was still bright and shiny in mainstream Marvel comics and a big chart that was red and white and green and yellow seemed like an entirely appropriate approach, especially when combined with the excellent FASERIP stat system and the ease of whipping up your own superpowers and characters. We were innocent, baby.

But two other color chart games spelled the end of my love affair with TSR. I was really jazzed about both Zebulon's Guide and Conan when they were first mentioned in the pages of Dragon. Zebulon delivered more races, more skills, a bigger better starmap, more background info, and more equipment. It could have been a 5 star supplement had all of this great stuff not also been married to an unnecessary universal color chart. Keep in mind that of all the TSR games of the previous generation Star Frontiers might have been the one LEAST in need of a rules overhaul. Unlike the rest, it had a workable, if simplistic, core mechanic: percentage dice roll-under. Unlike MSH, the color chart itself didn't seem to be implemented particularly well. The damage mechanics grated on me. Who wants to switch from roll-a-bunch-of-dice to a crappy full/half/quarter max system? I didn't. The colors selected for the chart were even more stupid. One color band was blue and another was cobalt. Cobalt. You roll one number and you get a blue result. Roll another number and you get a *different* blue result. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

The Conan the Barbarian rpg was even worse. First of all, what idiot green-lit yet another fantasy game for TSR? Was AD&D, D&D, and Dungeon not enough? Perhaps the TSR fantasy branding was *not*muddled*enough* with only three games that involved swords and spells? If there was any justice in the world this beyotch would have been a hardbound sourcebook for first edition AD&D. Instead we got a crappy universal color chart mechanic. Know that I really, really wanted to like the Conan rpg. Robert E. Howard is to me what Tolkien was to most D&D geeks of the era. The film adaptation totally rocked my world. To this day it is one of my all-time favorite movies. I owned the f'ing Conan the Barbarian soundtrack on CD before I even owned a CD player. When TSR screwed up the RPG, it broke my heart. Don't get me wrong, the setting sourcebook, "The World of Hyboria", is awesome. I'd still use that (along with GURPS Conan) if I were to tackle a new campaign set in Hyborean Age.

While rooting around in my game cabinet this morning I found the Conan rulebook and the 16-page booklet. The smaller booklet contained stuff that should have been in the rulebook. I'm not sure why they thought rules like the skill descriptions and combat charts needed their own book. The character creation and combat rules look serviceable enough.

The CtB spells rules are interesting. They largely mimc CoC in that each spell is a special case of its own, isolated from other rules. There no spell lists or level charts, instead the spell system is basically freeform. What sets CtB apart from other freeform spell system is that each individual spell must be researched. Virtually any attempt to learn a new spell ought to be an adventure in and of itself. Furthermore, starting characters begin the game with no spells whatsoever. If you want to be a sorcerer you have to do things the hard way. Becoming a magic-using character ought to justify more than sufficient quantities of adventure. Magic has it price, however. There are good, clean rules for becoming obsessed with magic and for degenerating in crippled obsessed magic-using freak. Good stuff.

But again, overall I don't like this game. It and Zebulon basically led to me dropping TSR except for D&D products. Several thing annoyed me about the game: Conan was is used in almost all the examples and in the sample adventure. Starting characters are total wusses compared to the Cimmerian, so I feel like the examples basically spend their time showing how much your PC sucks compared to Conan. This would be easier to ignore if the examples were better written and actually worked well as examples. They don't. Instead they spend all their time flexing Arnie's muscles at you. Also, I can't find any "how you do stuff" rules. They're easy enough to figure out extrapolating from the combat section, especially if you have encountered other TSR universal color chart games. Still, its annoying that characters have all these skills and the game doesn't bother to tell you how to adjudicate a basic skill check. It's sloppy, sloppy design.

And then there's that damn color chart. This may sound like a minor point but to me it is huge: the dark and gritty world of Conan the Barbarian should not, under any conditions, be simulated using a game that refers to a chart colored lime green, pee yellow and basketball orange. It's just plain wrong. Maybe if the chart were redone to report crimson, black, and grey results I could work with it. As it stands, Conan the Barbarian is just the opposite of MSH. The universal color chart just plain doesn't fit. Even worse is the fact that maybe we could have gotten a 1st edition AD&D Conan hardbound, instead we get this stuff. It took CtB and Zebulon for me to realize that just because grown-up hardcore game geeks write the TSR product line that doesn't mean that a newbie like myself is obligated to like their games.

The color charts also made me wonder how much the designers at TSR really thought about the gamers out in the boonies. I didn't have access to a color photocopier. Heck, I'm not sure they even existed back in '85. If they did, I didn't know about it. Since you use the universal color chart for nearly every game resolution, having just one was a pain the butt. I suppose a black & white copy would have worked, but back then even getting a single black & white copy for something was not easy for my game group. The other alternatives involved buying extra copies of the game, which was such a luxury we couldn't justify it for anything other than maybe D&D, or we could make a copy of the whole damn chart by hand. Our solution? Not play these stupid color chart games. We did some MSH, but the rest of the 3rd generation went unplayed.

The next waves of design innovation over at TSR largely went unnoticed by my gaming group, of course excepting the release of 2nd edition AD&D. We devoted more and more of our time to BattleTech when we weren't playing AD&D or Basic/Expert D&D. We also got in at least one good session of Ghostbusters and MSH, as well as decent sized mini-campaigns of MERP and Call of Cthulhu. The CoC campaign might have lasted even longer had we not experienced a total party kill at the end of one session. But that's the way Cthulhu goes sometimes.

I have heard about the some of the later TSR products, though I've never taken at look at the rules. The card-based SAGA system still has its adherents. SAGA rules were released for Dragonlance and a totally new Marvel game. In the case of SAGA Dragonlance I find myself again wondering what the folks at TSR were thinking. If D&D is the company cash cow and D&D is what the overwhelming majority of customers play, what good does it do to switch a setting over to a non-D&D system? I haven't heard of too many people who still like the Amazing Engine universal rules, though you can find some folks who like at least on of the setting books: For Faerie Queen & Country. I'm told that the later TSR universal rules Alternity have some things in common with what would become the D&D 3E game engine. I don't know a darn thing about the roleplaying materials in TSR's Buck Rogers line. The boardgame is well thought of in some circles. (Fun fact: TSR bid $70K for the rights to the Star Wars license, losing out to WEG's bid of $100K. Anybody with their head on straight should have been able to tell you, even back in the mid to late eighties, that Star Wars was a MUCH more valuable license than Buck Rogers. How much did TSR pay for the Rogers license? A hundred grand.)

But rather than stick with TSR, I moved on to other games for my non-D&D needs. TSR had taken a wrong turn during the universal color chart period and I was now on a different course, a course that would lead to new things like HERO and Pendragon, with occasional forays into stuff like FUDGE or Traveller. Nowadays I'm playing Savage Worlds and running Heroes Unlimited, but I want to go back to those earlier TSR games. Maybe its just the fact that I'm thirty now and am a real adult and a father. Maybe its simple nostalgia, a retreat toward a golden age of gaming that never really existed. Still, I can't help but thinking that there's some value, some fun to be had, in playing some of those olds game that never got a fair shake from us back in the day.

Posted by jrients at 10:24 AM CDT
Thursday, 8 April 2004

Over lunch today I flipped through my recently acquired BattleTech Master Rules, Revised edition. It looks very similar to the game I played in my youth, with additions from the Clan era and clarifications/refinements of unclear rules from previous editions. Though I haven't given it a thorough read yet, I think using the Master Rules will add to my BattleTech gaming.

It occurred to me tonight that each hex on the Amoeba Wars board could correspond to a Traveller Jump-6 map. Another thought I had was that the space amoebas could be simulated in Starmada as simply another faction with organic equipment. I'm not sure where putting this stuff together gets me.

Posted by jrients at 8:46 PM CDT

Last night the faithful gathered at the pancake place for Dave Hoover's Savage World campaign "Avatars". As you may know if you're a gamer, pointless miscellaneous delays always push back the start time of virtually any regularly-scheduled RPG session by 20 or 30 minutes. During this prelude I was able to discover that Ray St. John is not in C-U, his son Ray Junior is. On one hand I'm saddened that Rayray is not in town. On the other hand at least I know know why he didn't look me up.

Once the game got underway I had an absolute freakin' blast. Dave is a fun GM and Joe and Raymond are great players. I'm still trying to get a read on Loren, but he's by no means a big jerk or anything. Last night's game was a bizarre combination of moral dilemmas, inept detective work, and brutal vioence. Pretty much exactly how I expect a good game session to go. Joe wins the "freaked me out" trophy for having his character coldbloodedly execute tied-up prisoners. Ray wins the "cool beans, I didn't know he could do that" prize for shapechanging into a snake.

But Pat wins the coveted "holy crap I can't believe that just happened" lifetime achievement award. We had defeated some bad guys near the end of the session. My character wanted to capture the wounded enemies and interrogate them. Pat's mook Rongo wanted to kill them outright. My character is kinda scared of Rongo when he's in a killin' mood, so I offered to flip him for the fate of the prisoners, thinking that an oaf like Rongo would consider that a fair deal even if he lost. I flipped a quarter in the air, slapped my hand over it in the approved fashion, and asked Pat to call it. Without a moment's hesitation he called "coin". I was so dumbfounded I didn't dispute him when Rongoo began butchering. Everybody else at the table busted a gut over that fact that the party gronk had outsmarted the little wizardy guy. Dave found it so funny he went and interrupted the other game to tell everyone about it. They hooted and hollered.

Posted by jrients at 5:03 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, 8 April 2004 5:07 PM CDT
Wednesday, 7 April 2004

Yesterday was a particularly busy day at work and I ended up not having time for blogging. I got some moves in over at ItsYourTurn.com. Apparently in my initial enthusiasm over Anti-Chess I managed to vastly overestimate my talents, as I am proceeding to lose games with almost as much efficiency as Xiangqi. I also got a bit of work done last night on my redo of the old Chainmail attack matrix. (The one Jonathan Tweet makes a to-do about over at his website.) I'm hoping to play a Chainmail scenario with some paper figures in the nearish future.

I talked to my sister earlier in the week about Flatcon, the new con that sprang up over in Bloomington, Illinois a few years ago. It looks like her and her friend Michael will be meeting me there for at least part of the con. That's not until July, so I think we're going to try to schedule a game day sometime between now and then.

Tonight is another episode of Dave Hoover's Savage Worlds campaign. That ought to be fun, although the group hasn't exactly cohesed yet. Cohesed. Is that a word? Anyway, I'm hoping to get more information out of Dave regarding contacting Ray St. John.

Posted by jrients at 4:01 PM CDT
Monday, 5 April 2004

I got some of my recent game purchases in the mail today. SFKH3: The War Machine pretty much finishes up my Star Frontiers Knight Hawks collection. The Boot Hill referee's screen is pretty lame (2 panels, with one side of one panel devoted wholly to artwork!) but some of the famous gunfights described in the minimodule look like they could be fun. The BattleTech lot (consisting of the revised Master Rules, Maximum Tech, 17 mapsheets, and a bunch of counters) finishes up my BattleTech needs, aside from the odd issue of Star Date or BattleTechnology.

The big gaming news today is that my daughter Elizabeth and I played a game of Candyland today. It was our first attempt at playing a boardgame together. We got about a quarter of the way through the game before she started playing with the pieces in ways that indicated that she had lost interest in the gameplay. Still, she did a great job of putting the game back on the shelf that I have set aside for her games.

Posted by jrients at 8:39 PM CDT

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